Greenhouses may crop up in Pitkin County |

Greenhouses may crop up in Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
crmpi.orgLocal food grows high in a new greenhouse built at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale last year. The greenhouse was offered as an example of what might crop up in Pitkin County during a discussion Tuesday.

ASPEN – Easing up on Pitkin County’s land-use regulations could cultivate interest in local food production, but county commissioners weren’t sure Tuesday about how much leeway to grant property owners who want to erect a backyard greenhouse.

Commissioners wrestled with how much bonus square footage to devote to greenhouses, but agreed that some amount of extra space is appropriate for residents who find their green thumbs hampered by the short growing season in the mountains.

The county is already exploring exempt square footage for other agricultural buildings, but is addressing greenhouses separately.

At present, greenhouses are lumped in with barns in the county’s land-use code, and count as part of the allowed floor area for houses on lots of less than 20 acres. Properties larger than 20 acres but less than 160 acres in size are allowed a barn (or greenhouse) of up to 58 square feet per acre and it doesn’t count toward the floor area maximum. A property of more than 160 acres doesn’t face any limits on agricultural building size.

County staffers have suggested a minimum of 200 or 300 square feet of bonus space for a greenhouse, depending on lot size, with the ability for a residential property owner to request more – up to 1,000 square feet on a 35-acre lot, for example. Lots of 20 acres or less would be included.

A proposed residential greenhouse in the Old Snowmass area measured 1,300 square feet, noted Suzanne Wolff, senior planner for the county. That applicant didn’t consider 200 or 300 square feet sufficient.

“There is definitely a need for people to come in and get more square footage, even if they’re just growing for their personal needs,” she said.

“I would be careful not to make it too small,” advised Jerome Osentowski, whose Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute on Basalt Mountain is a showcase of year-round greenhouse agriculture. A greenhouse of less than 300 square feet isn’t functional, he said, suggesting 400 to 500 square feet is better, particularly when a solar system that heats the soil by pumping warm air through buried tubing is involved.

Michael Thompson, an architect, greenhouse designer and member of the committee helping the county draft new regulations, urged commissioners to differentiate between four-season greenhouses and “crop protection structures.” The latter can be temporary, and are simply used to lengthen the growing season, but many of them are considered structures under the county’s current code.

And, though the proposed new rules dictate separate greenhouse structures, commissioners were urged by some citizens to consider allowing bonus floor area for greenhouses that are attached to residences. The concern for commissioners and the county’s zoning officer is the conversion of the space to some other residential use.

“It’s just too easy to say, ‘This is now my garden terrace.’ There’s no real intent to harvest food,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards.

Richards called for analysis of how much bonus space a property could get for both greenhouses and other agricultural buildings under the various code changes being contemplated. The cumulative impact needs to be considered, she said.

By the time all the extra building space is added up, the rural feel of the property may be jeopardized, agreed Commissioner George Newman.

Commissioners only briefly discussed a separate committee recommendation for commercial greenhouses that would allow 100 square feet of greenhouse space per acre. That equates to 10,000 square feet on a 100-acre site.

“I just wonder if we’re giving away the farm here,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

Medical marijuana may be the most profitable commercial greenhouse enterprise, raising the specter of other regulations, Newman noted.

“It’s probably going to be more productive to grow marijuana plants than to grow beans in Pitkin County,” he said.

Greenhouses don’t provide the security that marijuana growers desire, Thompson countered.

No formal action on the greenhouse proposals occurred Tuesday, though the four commissioners present appeared open to providing some floor area bonus for the structures. Commissioner Patti-Kay Clapper, who leaves office next week, was not present.

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